DWI and DUI Courts are Effective: They Reduce Repeat DWI/DUI Offenses

DUI courts are effective in reducing the crime of drunken driving. That is, driving while intoxicated or while impaired. These courts are sometimes called DWI courts, sobriety courts, wellness courts, or accountability courts.  New Mexico established the first DUI court in the US in 1995. Now, there are many hundreds. That’s because of the effectiveness of DUI courts. 1 


I.   The DUI Problem

II.  Problem Concentrated

III. DUI Courts

IV.  What’s Ineffective

I. The DUI Problem

Drunken driving is a serious problem in the United States. Fortunately, the proportion of alcohol-related traffic fatalities has fallen from over 60 percent in 1975 to under 40 percent in recent years.

When calculated in terms of the number of vehicles on the road, of vehicle miles traveled, or the of the number of licensed drivers, The proportion has been cut in about half since the early 1980s. Nevertheless, over 15,000 people are still killed each year in alcohol-related crashes. And several thousand of these involve intoxicated drivers. 2 Every single injury and death caused by drunken driving is totally preventable.

II. Problem Concentrated

dui courts are effectiveMost drivers who have had something to drink have low blood alcohol content or concentration (BAC). Therefore, relatively few are involved in fatal crashes. On the other hand, while only a few drivers have BACs higher than 0.15, a much higher proportion of those drivers have fatal crashes. 3

  • The average BAC among fatally injured drivers is .16. 4 That is, it is twice the maximum legal BAC limit for driving.
  • The relative risk of death for drivers in single-vehicle crashes with a high BAC is 385 times that of a zero-BAC driver and for male drivers the risk is 707 times that of a sober driver, according to estimates by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. 5
  • High BAC drivers are disproportionately male, aged 25-35, and have a history of DWI convictions and polydrug use. 6
DUI offenders tend to fall into two categories.
  1. People who have made a poor decision and driven after having had too much alcohol to drink.
    • These drivers tend to have relatively low BACs.
    • Such drivers are usually dissuaded from the committing the crime
      in the future by punishment.
  2. Alcoholics who are hard-core repeat offenders.
    • These drivers tend to offend with very high and dangerous BACs.
    • Such drivers are very resistant to changing their drunken driving
      behavior. 7

III. DUI Courts Address Problem

DUI courts are effective because they address the problem of the second category. They do so by dealing with the root cause of the problem which is alcohol addiction. Drivers accepted into the rehabilitation program must typically:

  1. Plead guilty to the crime of DUI or DWI. They then usually receive a deferred sentence that is dropped if they successfully complete all terms and conditions of treatment.
  2. Abstain completely from all alcoholic beverages. They must wear monitoring devices and/or be subject to unannounced  tests for BAC.
  3. Undergo a treatment program that generally lasts 18 months to two years followed by a one to two-year probation.
  4. Appear in court every month or even every two weeks.

dui courts are effectiveThe recidivism rate (the proportion of offenders who go on to commit the crime again) is very low. About three of every four programs (73.3%) report single-digit recidivism rates. Thus, most programs have a recidivism rate below ten percent which is a success rate of over 90%.

IV. What’s Ineffective

The traditional approach of relying on punishment without treatment and accountability is largely ineffective with repeat offenders. As one judge observed, we cannot “jail our way out of the problem.” These courts address the problem by holding offenders to a high level of accountability, providing long-term intensive treatment, and carefully monitoring offender behavior for compliance. 8

DUI and DWI Courts can play an important role in reducing traffic crashes, fatalities and deaths. As another judge said, “When a hardcore drunk driving offender comes before the judiciary system and is found guilty of DWI, it may be one of the only opportunities for the system to address the reasons for the offender’s recidivism.” 9

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) promotes the establishment of these courts for a simple reason. DUI courts are effective.


1. Wallace, D. Personal comm. Alexandria, VA: Nat DWI Court Inst, 2015 (July 30).

2. NHTSA. Performance Measures. Washington: NHTSA, 2012, p. 35; CDC, 2011.

3. Hanson, D.  DWI Courts: Effectively Addressing Drunk Driving. In: Higgins, P. and Mackinem, M. (Eds.) Problem-Solving Courts. Justice for the Twenty-First Century? Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2009.

4. NHTSA, ibid.

5. Lund, A., et al. Contributions of Alcohol-Impaired Driving to Motor Vehicle Crash Death. Arlington, VA: Insur Inst Highway Safety. Ann meetings Inter Coun Alcohol, Drugs, and Traf Safety and Inter Assoc Foren Tox, Seattle: Aug 26-30, 2007, p. 4.

6. Hedlund, J., & Fell, J. Repeat Offenders and Persistent Drinking drivers in the U.S. Washington: NHTSA, 2007, p. 2.

7. Hanson, ibid.

8. Nat Drug Court Inst. DWI courts and DWI, drug courts. Reducing recidivism, saving lives. n.d., p. 3.

9. Nat Assn State Jud Educat. Hardcore Drunk Driving Judicial Guide. Williamsburg, VA: The Assn and the Century Coun, n.d., p. 10.